Will no one slate Apple’s iSlate?

First off, let's just remind ourselves who came up with this idea

Amid the avalanche of news articles and blogs gushing over the anticipated launch of an Apple tablet computer next week -- possibly called the iSlate or iPad, or neither -- it is perhaps worth taking stock of the situation and asking whether all the hype is really justified.

The idea of a tablet or slate PC is not new. In fact, they've been around for about ten years, and it's a format that came to the mainstream thanks to a product announcement by Microsoft in 2001, when the Redmond-based firm launched a pen-enabled computer running a licensed copy of the "Windows XP Tablet PC Edition".

It was essentially a laptop-style device that featured a touchscreen with handwriting recognition, to make it easier to jot down notes, rush off a quick sketch, or whatever. Some manufacturers opted to stay with the laptop's physical keyboard, spawning a category known as "booklets", while others dropped the keyboard in favour of just a touchscreen in a device resembling a slate.

So, first off, let's just remind ourselves who brought this concept to the mainstream -- Microsoft -- before we wonder whether Apple's version will "change the world" as some commentators are suggesting.

Second, it's worth noting that, so far, such tablets have found only a limited audience. A recent Morgan Stanley report suggested that two million tablet PCs were shipped last year, compared to 34 million netbooks and 131 million notebooks.

So why hasn't the tablet PC already overtaken more conventional laptops, notebooks or, indeed, the latest netbooks? Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive list of disadvantages. These include the higher cost, snail-like speed of handwriting recognition compared to a keyboard, screen and hinge damage risk, less familiar ergonomics and, in most cases, a relative lack of power.

So if Apple launches a tablet-style Mac next week, will it change any of this?

There are plenty who are happy to help Apple out with a bit of hype. The Guardian ran a front-page article in its G2 section, asking: "Can Apple change the world again?"

In that article, the author, Charles Arthur, makes some excellent points, but also says: "Now, however, armed with a decent-sized screen, effortless multi-touch, sleek good looks and all those millions of apps, perhaps Apple's tablet will prove the holy grail of being the consumer favourite for watching TV and movies, reading e-books, surfing the web and playing games."

Compared to many articles, this was understated, yet it still wonders whether the iSlate will change the portable TV, e-reader, web surfing and games device markets.

Meanwhile, the technology news site Silicon.com asked: "Is Apple preparing a tablet to kill all laptops?"

Kill all laptops? However great the new iSlate, it seems inconceivable that it will replace laptops. Typing on a keyboard is still the optimal way of adding text to an email, document or even Tweet. Not only are touchscreens fragile, but their on-screen keyboards can get greasy and prove less fast and accurate than the keyboards most people are familiar with.

There's surely going to be a question over battery life. While many are saying the iSlate will revolutionise both the e-reader (digital book) and publishing industries, I'm yet to be convinced.

Charles Arthur enthuses, "The Apple tablet's reading experience is expected to be much enhanced from the current crop of handheld e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle, which launched in November 2007 and costs about £300. With its monochrome screen, plasticky white buttons and limited web browsing capabilities, you'd never mistake the Kindle for an Apple product."

But there's a reason that today's e-readers tend to opt for a monochrome screen. A digital book or e-reader is designed to mimic a book. That means it needs to be both easy on the eye and have a rather long battery life: if you can read a book for days without having to think about batteries, you certainly wouldn't want to swap that experience for one in which you must recharge a battery every few hours.

Yet even the iPhone, with a far smaller screen than any predictions for the iSlate, suffers complaints about having a limited battery life under typical usage patterns.

So it's unlikely to compete head-on with dedicated e-readers, at least if it has a bright, colour screen. And it won't kill off laptops because most people still want a keyboard, and a folding keyboard happens to protect the screen from knocks and scratches, too.

Meanwhile, in a story entitled "Apple may change the world . . . again", Fast Company says: "We're in for a massive change in the world of computing as we know it." The author, Gadi Amit, suggests that, "Since Apple has rarely (or actually . . . never?) failed with market introduction of a strategic device, I will go out on a limb and say that this might change the software industry as well."

Amit is clearly forgetting about the Apple TV set-top box, and the Apple Cube, which, as Arthur points out, was a pet project of the Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, that sank without trace.

But Amit says the iSlate will revolutionise the software market, just to add to the claims that it will revolutionise the publishing industry, reinvigorate portable gaming, kill the laptop market and shake up the e-reader market to boot.

Is there nothing this device is not predicted to revolutionise? Perhaps that will be its biggest challenge: trying to be all things to everyone. Is it an e-reader, a portable gaming device, a big iPhone, a form-changing laptop, or none of the above?

Whatever it turns out to be, I'm bored by the ridiculous hype already. Which is not to say that it won't still sell by the truckload, to those who would shoot themselves in the iFoot if Steve Jobs got up on stage to explain in charismatic fashion why they should.

Jason Stamper is the technology correspondent of the New Statesman and editor of Computer Business Review

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.